If you were into the underground college rock of the Pixies, the Replacements and Sonic Youth back in the Reagan daze, then a musical tribute to '80s hair bands might not sound too appealing.
That's why the screen version of Broadway's “Rock of Ages” is such a surprising kick in the pants. The radio-worn songs of Spandex-clad, shoulder-padded, bushy-headed bands like Poison, REO Speedwagon and Twisted Sister never sounded as great as they do when delivered by a super-talented cast that includes Julianne Hough (“Burlesque”), newcomer Diego Boneta, comedian Russell Brand (“Get Him to the Greek”), Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”), Catherine Zeta-Jones (“Chicago”), Malin Akerman (“The Proposal”), R&B queen Mary J. Blige, and especially Alec Baldwin and Tom Cruise as you've never seen or heard them before.
No stranger to musical comedy and videos, Adam Shankman (“Hairspray”) directs with a sure hand from a screen adaptation by Justin Theroux, Chris D'Arienzo and Alan Loeb of this Cinderella story of Sherrie Christian (Hough), a small-town girl from Oklahoma (still scriptwriters' idea of the ultimate hick state) who ventures to Hollywood's Sunset Strip circa 1987 with rock 'n' roll dreams in her heart.
There she meets Drew (Boneta), an aspiring rock star himself, who helps her land a job at the club where he works: The Bourbon Room, hottest rock 'n' roll venue on the Strip, right up there with the Roxy and the Whiskey.
Both kids are hoping club owner Dennis Dupree (Baldwin, hilarious as a long-haired '60s throwback) might give them the music-biz break they need, but he's too preoccupied with saving his struggling establishment.
For this he needs Arsenal lead singer Stacee Jaxx (Cruise, looking every inch the decadent rock god), who's about to embark on a solo career and is bringing his band back to the Bourbon — the venue that launched his group to stardom — for a farewell performance. The show could make or break Dupree's club, depending on whether Jaxx even shows up, being the notoriously booze-blurred, eccentric hedonist that he is.
And then there's Stacee's shifty manager, Paul Gill (an amusingly sleazy Giamatti), who's been known to welsh on contracts, and the self-righteous mayor's wife (a fiery Zeta-Jones) who's crusading to shut down the iniquitous club scene altogether.
It's all pretty silly and all too similar to musical story lines we've seen before, but the comic turns by Baldwin and Brand as his devoted hippie-dippy sound tech are priceless, especially when they duet on REO Speedwagon's “Can't Fight This Feeling” after discovering the true nature of their feelings for one another. And then there's Cruise's seduction of a no-nonsense Rolling Stone reporter (Akerman) on a pool table as they breathlessly croon Foreigner's “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
Executive music producer Adam Anders (“Glee”) and music supervisor Matt Sullivan (“Chicago”) have enriched and polished the instrumental arrangements of these familiar anthems to a level that's superior to the Top 40 originals, and all of the actors turn in vocal performances that range from admirable to excellent.
And then there's Cruise, who underwent dedicated vocal training in preparation for this role. When he cuts loose on Guns N' Roses' “Paradise City” and Def Leppard's “Pour Some Sugar On Me” he is absolutely electric, making all the right stage moves to boot. Could this be the start of a second career? Take note, Axl Rose and Joe Elliott.
If only the '80s had really been this much fun.
— Gene Triplett
‘Rock of Ages'
Starring: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Malin Akerman, Alec Baldwin, Tom Cruise. (Sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking and language)